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Chapter One - Helpx at Cortijo Los Plumas in the Alpujarras

See my Vlog on this trip here

The annual Formula One shutdown is a two-week closure for all teams, where no work, regarding the cars, can be carried out. Currently I’m on a short-term contract at Haas F1 Team in Banbury, my home town.

It’s a shame to waste these two weeks lounging around at home as holiday is quite hard to take in F1, except for the odd day here and there. My choice this year was to go on a working ‘holiday’ in Spain.

I hadn’t messaged via Helpx, but Amanda is a host of Helpx and I am a Helper of Helpx, so to all intents and purposes, I was Helpxing. And to be clear, Helpxing isn’t really a holiday, it is a working holiday, where you need to put in work for your accommodation and food, or whatever deal the hosts are offering.

As usual I’d booked this trip late, only a week or so before flying. Not only does booking late mean the flights were expensive but being August, there’s the ‘school holiday premium’. The best I could afford was to get the 6am flight from Luton on Sunday the 5th of August to Malaga. Never again, if I can help it! It meant getting up at half one in the morning to be at Luton for 4am. Too bloody early!

I’d booked long-stay parking, it’s a bit of a dick about as time is needed to park and get the bus to the terminal. I’d decided to take my mountain bike with me, so I wasn’t exactly travelling light.

I was quite impressed with how EasyJet has improved over the years. Even though the airport was rammed, and the queue very long, it only took around 5-10 minutes to do the bag drop. The extra legroom seat I’d booked was great, and the bike drop-off was seamless, and Bay (my Specialized Camber bike) arrived in Malaga in one piece!

My ride from Malaga airport to the mountains was from a friend that lives in the mountains, so he’d had a long drive to Malaga, around two and a half hours then back again. It was very nice of him to agree to pick me up, so cheers Rich! That’s the worst part of getting to the Sierra Nevada and the Alpujarras, the transfer from the airport to the mountains. Not so bad if you rent a car, but with my track record of driving on the wrong side of the road, I wasn’t going to risk it!

We hadn’t made proper arrangements as to exactly where Rich would pick me up, so that was a bit of a faff, but nothing too drastic! It seems the only way to do drop-off and pick-up at Malaga is to park in the multi-story carpark and do it from there.

The journey passed quite quickly, with lots of discussion on politics and general catching-up on affairs of Las Alpujarras! I hadn’t seen him since he came to my rescue after I’d had a car accident up there in early 2009, getting me from the mountains to the airport, all those years ago. I was a bit worse for wear at the time, with bleeding and bandaged arms, struggling to walk and struggling to breathe due to being hit hard by the airbag, and being under the influence of whatever drugs and drips the hospital had me on. Not nice memories at all, but Rich was great.

That time I think that I was on a Ryan air flight, the Pilot was refusing to take off with me on the plane in that state but after some discussion and tears he agreed I could stay.

Landing at Gatwick late at night, barely able to walk, was a nightmare. I got a train into London town then got the Oxford Tube bus to Oxford, then a taxi to my car which was parked at Renault F1 headquarters at Enstone, as I’d gone straight from a Jerez test to the mountains. Only to find it was really difficult to drive with my injuries.

I’d had my fill of the mountains and decided to sell my cortijo and land up there as I thought I’d never return. What a mistake, I could kick myself. As it was, I didn’t return until 2015, staying six weeks, on my way home from Australia.

Three years on and I was returning again, even with the bad memories, these mountains capture your heart. I think always I will have a longing to be there, sadly I’ve missed my opportunity to live there.

Anyway, back to my journey, I messaged Amanda, the lady I was to be working for, when we passed the turning for Almejijar, as agreed, to say we was on our way. Literally the moment Rich dropped me in the village of Juviles and pulled away, Amanda arrived. It’s good when a plan comes together!

It’s actually a little scary getting picked up by someone you know little about, taking you somewhere with no real address, perhaps foolish even. At this point I hadn’t researched Los Plumas on Helpx, although I had asked a friend that knew them, who had said Amanda and Andy were lovely people, which was good enough for me.

My main fear of meeting new people is that I’m socially inept and end up saying the wrong things because I’m trying hard to fit in and be normal!

The nearest village to Los Plumas is Castaras, once out of the village it is quite a way on an un-surfaced road to get to their parcel of land. The winding un-surfaced switch-backs of mountain road, dropping down deep into the valley are quite fabulous and rugged. It reminded me why I love this region so much.

I was given the choice as to whether I wanted to stay in the main cortijo where Amanda and Andy live or in the casita just below it. Being a loner I chose the casita.

The casita is built in the traditional Alpujarran style, lots of wood, shuttered windows, white-washed walls and a flat Launa roof. Consisting of a large bedroom, a sitting room/study with kitchen area and a bathroom. Out front and looking into the valley was a terrace, it couldn’t be more perfect!

Arriving at the farm around 3pm, Amada and Andy gave me a quick tour of the farm. With five dogs and five horses plus three cats I had a lot of names to learn, continuing to get them wrong for many days!

I was bushed after travelling for over 12 hours, so after the tour I had a siesta. Work started that evening, around 7pm we went down to the stables to turn the horses out into the paddocks for the night. The horses are kept in during the day, keeping them out of the sun and flies, so there’s plenty of mucking out to do during the evening turn around.

Being high summer, with no green vegetation for the horses to eat, there’s also the matter of filling and putting up hay nets and giving the horses a hard feed too. Although the horses can wander for many KMs, with plenty of streams to drink from, there’s also a water trough to clean and fill.

So that turned out to be a normal evening’s work, after, we would go for a walk with the dogs down the rambla. Occasionally Andy would join us, which was nice as I didn’t see an awful lot of him, except at meal times, or perhaps when he was working in the study in the casita.

The rambla is an un-surfaced road at the bottom of their valley, that is used to get to villages the other side of their land, as opposed to the winding road we took from Juviles. A mountain stream runs alongside the rambla and crosses it, by my reckoning, ten times in the 2km stretch to an intersection with the main dry riverbed.

It’s amazing that the streams are still flowing. Water can be a real problem in the Alpujarras, with summer droughts causing hardship to the farmers, even more so in the lower hills of the Contraviesa. It really can be quite desert like, with very hot summer months and little rain. When it does rain it can be torrential but tends to be a short sharp shower, which barely moistens the ground.

There were many thunderstorms in the surrounding hills, but only twice did it rain in the Los Plumas valley, once torrential, lasting around an hour or so, barely having an impact on the parched ground. But enough to keep the mountain streams and water deposits topped up, which is so important.

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